Lost in Space – the unsettlement of interdisciplinarity 

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Most people will focus on a single fruit, and maybe a few sections of that fruit. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to think about the whole bowl!

 

I’ve been feeling increasingly rootless over the past few months, but in a weirdly good way. Well, mostly good. I’m bringing in loads of new ideas to my work, which is intellectually stimulating but also quite tricky as the scope of those ideas is enormous. Perhaps it’s all just too big, I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see. The reason for this is that my research is heading in a new direction, or at least adding new directions to my existing ones. It’ll probably make more sense if I explain this…

Starting Point/s

Overall, I’m interested in universities, and particularly in how universities differ from each other, both within and between countries. My ‘home territory’ in terms of focus is how students’ experiences vary, and how this is often related to who they are and their previous experiences. I could spend the rest of my career in this ‘niche’, a lot of people will, and they’ll contribute really important work to it. Often they’ll look at a niche within a niche, such as class or gender, sexual orientation or race/ethnicity, or religion.

Such a long-term, ‘narrow’ focus is essential because any one of those dimensions is incredibly complex and nuanced; it’s is only through years of sustained examination that we really get to understand them more fully. Each of them also overlaps – intersects – with others, in that being a white, male, straight middle class student is different to being a black, male, straight, middle class one. The more you shuffle the combinations, the more varied it all gets, and people will often consider a few in combination. It’s fascinating and important work, as the further removed you are from the dominant group (white, male, posh), the rougher your ride will be – and it’s through no fault of your own. Making the system less exclusive is one of the most pressing social concerns we have.

New Direction/s

I’m still going to be looking at identity and universities, but I’m also adding some new bits to the mix. Anyone who’s studied/worked at more than one university will know that they contrast in thousands of slightly – or very – different ways. This comes from a combination of the organisation’s history, who works/studies there, who runs it, who used to work/study there/run it, where it’s located, how it’s built and laid out, and so on. To illustrate, how you see (or feel at) Cambridge will in part be related to its rich and traditional (or antediluvian and oppressive) culture, the wonderful and gifted (or annoying and entitled) people there, and its gorgeous and inspiring (or intimidating and excluding) architecture.

There’s research on all of these areas – more on some than others – but it’s currently not very joined together, often being limited to discussions within a single discipline. Such is the nature of academic research, as areas can have their own focii, language, and ways of doing things. This means that they can be a bit like oil and water at times. Which disciplines are involved – or ‘involvable’ in my research? Well, the world’s your oyster. In no particular order, there’s relevant work in Sociology, Geography, Philosophy, Anthropology, Politics, Management , Economics, Architecture, Urban Studies, Organisational Studies, Literature, and Art History. That’s in the first/closest circle. The second circle could involve Computer Studies, Accounting, Town Planning, Engineering, Law…and so on.

Risks and Rewards

What this means for me is that I’m able to – or am having to – read really widely. I’ve always tried to rummage a bit around the fringes, but there’s often little time for this. If you’re under pressure to teach certain materials and publish at a particular rate, there can be few gaps in between; you have to be strategic (i.e. confined) in terms of what you read. If it’s not directly related to your paper/topic, it either gets ignored or goes into that folder of ‘non-essential things I’d like to read’. I think most academics probably have one of these. Occasionally I go back into it and pick something up or fillet out and discard the odd thing, but if it was in paper form, the pile would comfortably be as tall as me.

From one angle, I’m absolutely loving this broadness, this enormous variety. As long as it’s ‘on topic’, I can include it, and this allows me to follow trails of references out of curiosity, burrowing down fascinating rabbit holes. As you might imagine I’m coming across an incredible diversity of authors and ideas. It’s partly confusing but mostly eye-opening and enriching. It’s great! From another angle, though, I’m a bit lost. How do I join all of this together? Should I? Can I?

There’s a worry here that I’ll be caught in an academic no-man’s land, a jack of all trades and master of none. I could present at a conference, or submit a paper, and be called out for not having read deeply enough in that particular concept or field. (As it is, the volume of material across my topic is far too big for anyone to take in.) In my scavenging across disciplines and literatures, am I on a path towards creating a Frankenstein’s monster that doesn’t quite fit together? Most academics are generous with their insights and support, giving credit for what you’re doing and offering constructive feedback on how to improve it. Others are less so, and they delight in highlighting your shortcomings; it makes them feel better about their own expertise and defends their position in that field. It’ll be a ride, that’s for certain…

Checking My Privilege

It’s really important to mention here that I’m in a very privileged position. I’m in a permanent post, in a field and department that welcomes interdisciplinary thinking, and where I’m new so I haven’t accumulated the full load of responsibilities yet. I also have external funding for the research project that forms the basis of all of this. It could be a very different story. This wide-ranging approach possibly lacks the tight focus for a PhD, and wouldn’t necessarily fit tidily within a bigger, coordinated post-doc project, either. Some disciplines are very picky about which journals you publish in, and this can limit the topics, or the research methods you can use, which can make life difficult for early career researchers who need to publish to get their careers off the ground.

In short, I’m fortunate to have this idea and opportunity at this precise moment in my career, and to be working in an area which allows eclecticism. Two years ago, it wouldn’t have worked as I didn’t have the time or space, and in two years from now I may not, either.

 

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Posted in Early Career Academia | Leave a comment

The Reluctant Union-ist

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Some people would rather feed the birds than the the political process. 

Barry was absent-mindedly watching a pair of plump tits in the garden through his home office window. He’d recently refilled the bird feeders – it was nesting season – and the local avian population had been availing itself of the contents. So it should be.

He’d received a letter this morning from the union – all the bumph for a vote for a new General Secretary. It had come as a bit of a surprise, he’d had no idea there was an election pending. The voting form was on the corner of his desk, listing three candidates he’d never heard of. He picked it up and used it as to mark his place in the book he’d been reading. There was, of course, a danger that he’d never send it in, but then it probably wouldn’t make much difference anyway. The UCU, as all unions were, was hobbled by the 50% rule so even if there was a real firebrand leading the charge, it was virtually impossible to get that kind of turnout on any topic. Plus ca change and all that.

Barry was a union member, but not what you’d call an active one. He mostly saw it as an insurance policy in the unlikely event of an employment tribunal or something like that. His political inactivity was probably surprising given that he was a successful scholar in International Relations, and had cut his teeth in the early days (doing his DPhil and then writing a subsequent book) on the geopolitics of the Polish Solidarity movement. Looking at things on paper, in principle – theoretically – was one thing. It had been intellectually stimulating to slowly tease the threads out, of Communism, Catholicism, and the pure chance of political-planetary alignment and the social networks that wove it all together. The everyday practice of politics was entirely different: overly changeable, messy, petty factionalism; it was too difficult in real time to get a proper grasp of what was going on. There was so much noise, chatter, urgency. One needed time, slow scholarship, to really understand what was going on. Sadly, one couldn’t vote in hindsight, and that’s really what was required.

Last year’s strikes, ostensibly over pensions but also in practice about much that was wrong in higher education, had been a rare occasion where the turnout had been high enough to trigger action. There’d been all sorts of opaque skulduggery by the pensions provider, it was absolutely not on. He had gone on strike – in part because he was obliged to, his university had a majority of staff in the USS – but hadn’t taken part in the pickets. He lived a good hour away from the university, and the cut in salary on those strike days, alongside the cost of the commute into London, made it financially unattractive. The twins, fifteen now, and very into their sports, were trying to eat them out of house and home. They’d have had to cut down on something. Preferably not.

He had shown solidarity, of a sort. In addition to not going into the office, he’d ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ colleagues’ and prominent strikers’ pictures and statements. He wasn’t the most active of  Tweeters, in fact he realised that he’d  been on it for months. Maybe he did recognise one of the names on the ballot, vaguely, Grady, was it? Perhaps. Anyway. The strike days had fortuitously fallen on days he’d ordinarily have been teaching, which got him off the hook. He’d been able to use that time to finish off his latest book, as well as polish up a grant application, which had been successful. These, in combination, had combined to provide the tipping point for his promotion to professor last summer. There was an irony in there, somewhere, probably. He’d address this in due course, slowly, after the fact. Only way to really do it justice.

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The Multiple Shitnesses of the ECR Job Market

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Every Sunday mornings, for over a year – anything out there for me?

Over about 18 months, I looked into but didn’t apply for about 80 jobs, enquired about – but didn’t apply for – 20, applied for 15, was shortlisted for five, and got one. Whether I was shortlisted or not was difficult to predict., and some that I looked well-suited (or even slightly overqualified) for, I didn’t get a look-in. Others that I thought might be a step too far, I did get an interview. Of five where I was shortlisted, I genuinely wanted three, and was offered (and took) one of those. One is enough, right, but getting there was a real slog. From my experiences, and through discussions with colleagues, it’s clear that there are some real problems in the academic job market. Here’s a handful:

CV-building? How?

I’ve written about this before, but it can be difficult to know what you’re supposed to have on your CV to make you attractive for academic jobs. Some universities are good at providing information about this, some aren’t, and sometimes the only way to be well-informed is to either find out the hard way – by working out what you haven’t got when you look at job applications – or by getting help from someone who’s already done that. I’ve had a mixture of both, but you often find out when it’s too late, you’ve (nearly) got your doctorate and are looking for post-doc jobs. Added to this, there is increasing pressure on universities to get people to complete their doctorates in 3-4 years, which means that there’s very little time to do your research project and get experience in teaching, other projects, conference presentations, publications… If you’re already in a job that has no time or support for staff development or publishing, that really doesn’t help, either.

Bottleneck

There are a lot of PhDs being awarded every year, and it’s in universities’ interests to ‘produce’ more and more as it counts towards their ‘research environment’ rating, which in the UK that has a direct bearing on state research funding. (Doctoral students are also cheap labour on research projects). The downside is that the supply of doctoral holders vastly exceeds the number of post-doc places, either inside or outside academia. This is not a problem for employers, obviously, because it drives their costs down as they can underemploy overqualified people. Anecdotally, what you need on your CV to get your first academic job seems to be much more than it was a decade ago. The number of academic jobs is going up by 2% a year while doctoral degree numbers are rising at double that rate, on average. Not everyone wants to stay on universities, but it’s creating a squeeze for those that do, and for those that don’t, there’s a lack of support/information around accessing non-academic jobs.

Crap Jobs

A really hot topic at the moment is the increase in precarious academic jobs. Just as we’ve seen the emergence and increase of zero hours contracts in the private sector, the same thing is happening in higher ed, with a lot of highly-qualified ‘hourly-paid’ contracts, doing little bits of teaching here and there. The next step up from that is a part-time, limited term job, usually attached to a research contract that runs for a set period. About half of all academic jobs in the UK aren’t permanent. It’s far cheaper for universities to employ people as and when they need them, rather than have people on their payroll, soaking up their resources when there’s no research funding to support them. It can be hard on these precarious jobs to develop your career and CV unless your boss allows time for that – sometimes you only have time to do the job, and nothing else, not even publish. Some people have to do several of these at once, in different parts of the country; that travel and changing hats between jobs can be hard, and if you have a family, it’s brutal.

Round Pegs in Square Holes?

A lot of academic job adverts, while being specific to a field (like Education etc) are still quite vague in terms of exactly what specialist subjects and skills within that they’re looking for. A department’s main concern is not finding someone at all, so they make the application broader than they want in order to attract the maximum number of applicants. At least then if they don’t get a perfect match, they get someone close enough. You have to persuade your university that there’s a real need for a new position, and it takes time to recruit and for the person to move, at least a few months, by which point you might be desperate, particularly if someone has left and everyone else is carrying that person’s responsibilities in the interim. So the job spec is slightly vague, and loads of probably unsuitable people apply, shooting in the dark and wasting their time. Top tip: always contact the nominated person on the ad and ask for further details, I’ve saved myself a lot of wasted applications that way. Sometimes they say ‘just apply anyway’, again because they’re worried about not filling the post at all.

Time Applying

If you do find one that looks appropriate, academic job applications take bloody hours to fill in. You have to move nearly all of your CV across into an online (or sometimes paper) form and it’s a different system for every university, so you can’t send a CV in or transfer other applications over. Why can’t they all use the same one?!?! Then you have to write a 1-2 page personal statement explaining that you meet their criteria, providing evidence of exactly how – grants received, PhDs supervised, projects led, and so on. Even for similar jobs, the spec varies slightly, so you have to write an entirely new statement every time. You get better at it as you go along, there’s a knack to it, but it’s at least a few hours. If you bear in mind that a lot of those applications will go straight in the bin because someone in HR has an internal list that they check applications against, and then the shortlisting group has their criteria (much of which you can’t know about), then that’s thousands and thousands of hours wasted across the sector every year. Why don’t they have a short application for shortlisting and then a longer one for longlists? They’d save endless amounts of pain and time.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Not having a job, or being in one that’s coming to a close, or in one that you don’t like, is exhausting in itself. It gnaws at you, you get the jobs list every week, and get to the point where you’re compulsively applying for things that might be a bit tangential, but you never know, and you don’t score any of the goals you don’t shoot for, right? You then have the little glimmer of hope when you send it off – maybe this is the one. Of course it’s usually followed by the dull thump of an email in your inbox to say ‘you’ve not been shortlisted, we had a lot of highly qualified candidates etc etc’, but you don’t get feedback at this stage and therefore have no idea if you were slightly close or miles away.

When you get shortlisted, and called to interview, it’s super-exciting, and the presentation and interview occupies your thoughts for weeks. You run over it in your head, then put it together, amend it, and you wonder how many people have been shortlisted, and who they are, if they’re much better than you, all of that stuff. Then on the day, you do your thing, have the interview and hope. Sometimes you meet the other candidates, and often you know at least one of them – you talk to friends, and you’re all applying for the same things… Coming second on the day is no cigar, but at least at this stage you get feedback and you know if you’d have been appointable but someone else pipped you to it and how. But it takes a lot out of you, being so close and falling short. I got turned down for one job I really wanted and became pretty worried that I was becoming less and less employable for certain kinds of universities. All of this applying, waiting, hoping – it takes it out of you.

Overall, yuk

So, in short, job hunting in academia is a tough one. Not many jobs, not many good jobs,  difficulties in knowing what you need to be employable, and employers being too vague about what they really want. Hours and hours pissing in the wind with applications that don’t get read, very high rates of failure, and then being pipped at the post; the whole thing is demoralising. Solidarity and good luck to people out there still looking, and particularly to those of you who are more likely to be discriminated against in your applications than me. That’s just about everybody.

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | 1 Comment

Moving on…to the Promised Land? 

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As the sun sets on one job, it rises on another…

A few months ago I wrote about being anxious due to having, I felt, too little space for intellectual development. It’s not that I was standing still, but rather that I was developing more slowly than I could, or than I wanted to. My workload in terms of teaching and administrative roles left me with too little space for investigation, thinking, and writing. I’d ideally want to divide my time more or less equally between teaching, admin, and research, and the latter was playing third fiddle by some margin

I saw colleagues elsewhere forging ahead and was somewhat envious of them. Not so much of their individual success, more that they were in a situation where they had the space and support to be make more progress. They may have had more pressure on them to publish etc, but that was clearly facilitated by the capacity to achieve it. At least it looked that way! What I wasn’t saying outright, but certainly implied, was that I wanted to be working in a different kind of situation, and that meant working in a different kind of university. Where I was working wasn’t going to change, or not quickly enough for me: I wanted to be in a more research-intensive university. These come with their pros and cons, but rightly or wrongly, I wanted to be in one.  Well, now I am – I started on Monday.

Life is going to be different, in lots of ways. There are a two key things that stand out:

No more Undergraduates. 

My new department only teaches at postgraduate level. I have loved seeing undergraduates develop intellectually, particularly in the first year. In some ways the key is not so much about what you teach in terms of content but trying to facilitate changes in how they think and address problems. With postgraduates, the complexity of the material, and the understanding you want for – and from – them is higher, and this will take getting used to. If anything, this is what I’m most concerned about at the start, pitching the material (and providing support and feedback) at the right level.

Two things I’ll miss less are the broad spectrum of engagement and the market pressures. On the first, undergraduates can be a very mixed bag, from super-engaged and enthusiastic to disinterestedly pissing about on their phones for a whole class. Why this is the case is not simple, but it’s connected to the fact that many young people see few other viable options to university, and some go as the best bad choice. Postgraduate students on the whole, I think (or hope?!), make more of a conscious choice to study further, and should be more committed. Also, while all universities have concerns around student recruitment at every degree level, this is heightened for undergraduates; it isn’t helped by the fact that the number of people leaving school each year is going to be down for the next few years due to lower birth rates in the early 2000s. Added to this, there is heavier market pressure around undergrads. This is created, in part, by externally imposed metrics like employabilitystudent satisfaction, and moral panics about ‘grade inflation‘, all of which can get in the way of how universities and staff interact with, and relate to students.

More Hierarchies

An unusual thing about my old job is that there was little difference in the level of seniority and experience across the department. The university seems to recruit people soon after their doctorates, and they stay for a few years and then move on. Like me! It’s not everyone, but it is a good proportion. I think this contributed to the fact that there was little in the way of departmental politics, nobody pulled rank because there was no pretty much no rank to pull. But it also meant that some kinds of support were hard to come by. Not in terms of seeking and receiving help, my colleagues were impeccable in that regard – I don’t think I was ever turned down by anyone.

What was missing was developmental support, in two ways. The first was that the lack of much more experienced staff made it more difficult to seek advice on how to improve your work, what else to read, how to apply for bigger grants, and so on. Some of that improvement you work out for yourself, or through friends elsewhere, but having people in the same corridor who are ten, twenty – or more – years ahead of you can be enormously helpful. It also changes the tone and nature of conversations, the feel of a place. The lack of senior colleagues was compounded by the absence of staff training, outside the development of teaching. In terms of long-term growth, around research skills or career planning and management, we were largely limited to what we arranged ourselves. My new employer has an extensive CPD programme and an abundance of senior staff.

Assorted Others

A bunch of other things are different, too. One is that I won’t be in classrooms any more, or at least, much, much less than 4-10 hours a week, as a large proportion of the teaching in my new department is online. With classroom teaching, you have to put your game face on, perform in the moment, and this can be hard at times, but it’s also really fun when it works. The stage fright that accompanies big lectures can also come with a rush, which I quite like, somehow. I’ll have to try and create some of that atmosphere, that interpersonal enthusiasm, at a distance, by email, in forums, webinars, and so on. It’s going to be an interesting challenge.

Also, my new place is twice the size in both staff and student numbers, and more diverse in terms of the subjects and faculties. It has a large proportion of international students – my last place had only a handful. As a family, we’ll be moving, hopefully this summer, subject to the madness that is house selling and buying in the UK, and the locations are poles apart in terms of size, demographics, and geography. We’re essentially swapping a major city to a market town on the edge of three national parks. The dog will be over the moon!

Mixed Emotions

It’s worth mentioning that leaving and starting a new job has its highs and lows. I’m relieved and excited to have more opportunities to grow in the ways I wanted to, but simultaneously scared of the possibilities! I’m looking forward to getting to know new people, but am also sad to leave good colleagues and students at what feels like the end of an era. The emotional work of moving out of a job is considerable, too. I wasn’t leaving on a sour note, and I liked a lot of things about the last place. This meant that, both personally and professionally, it was essential for me to manage my exit in a way was as painless as possible for my former students and colleagues. Carefully documenting and then transferring courses, course materials, classes, and supervisees, was a major weight to carry, and I only finished it all off on my very last day.

I have very high hopes for the future. I’m not expecting some kind of fabled Promised Land, and there will no doubt be things that grind. It’s still academia, and its core aspects and issues are unchanged. It’s more a shift in the how and with whom it happens. Watch this space!

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, Teaching in HE | 1 Comment

Is the UK higher education’s cup half full, half empty, or about to be running on empty?

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Which one best represents your view of UK HE now, and in a year from now?

My overall premonition around coming back to work in this New Year is not positive. I feel quite anxious, a real sense of imminent dread. On a personal level, it looks to be an enormously exciting year, with a long yearned-for change of job – as well as a new research project – in the coming months. Both of these represent great steps forward for me, and I’ll be writing about both in time. So what is it that’s making me so nervous? In short, it’s where UK higher education might find itself at the end of 2019. In some ways the year ahead looks like the perfect storm, an unfavourable planetary alignment of several major events, any one of which would wreak significant damage on the sector. Somehow, by accident or by design, they all appear to be coming to a head this year.

National Debt

There has been a major review of university and other post-18 education funding, the findings and recommendations of which are due out this year. Given the state of the economy, and the Conservative government’s continuing insistence on a politics of austerity, they can only be looking to save money. This comes right after recent changes in the way that student debt is calculated in our national finances, no longer counting as an asset in terms of loans that are repaid, but the recognition that a good portion of them aren’t. In short, they’re a partial debit, not an overall credit. The rumours seem to point to the fact that the review – led by Philip Augur – does not augur well. (Pun intended.)

Student Debt

A fall in fees might look like good news in terms of access to university, as it saddles students with less debt and thereby reduces, to some, a disincentive to study. Sort of, yes, but a proportion of the currently high fees has gone into supporting less affluent students through their studies. A drop in fees only works there if the shortfall in money coming from students (through government loans) is made up by the state in the shape of grants. This is unlikely, unless that shortfall is given in exchange for more of a say in what kinds courses (particularly sciences) are provided, and by whom (particularly high status universities), because they offer better ‘value for money’. Don’t get me started on ‘VfM’…

University Debt

While the drop in fees is probably bad for all universities, it may be cataclysmic for some. Newer universities (which are better at serving disadvantaged students) tend to have their eggs in one basket – students, rather than research – so they are very exposed by reductions in fees. A number of others also appear to be tottering on the verge of insolvency, having borrowed heavily to build extensive new facilities. These institutions are looking to save money by divesting themselves of staff, putting a freeze on promotion, and/or increasing student numbers. This will likely not end well for their staff, or students. This all comes along at a time when students numbers are down anyway, in part due to the fact that the volume of school leavers is shrinking due to a period of lower birth rates just after the turn of the millennium.

Pay and Pensions

In addition to the fees issues, there are ongoing disputes around pay and pensions. As in most parts of the economy, pay in universities is not rising at the same rate as inflation, so salaries in practice are actually falling. This could lead to industrial action since the universities have not been keen to award pay raises, and must be less keen to do so now. There will almost certainly be strikes against changes to pensions. This started last year, and early fears of skulduggery by the USS pension fund managers seem to have been well-founded. They had initially stated that the fund was in a bad way, and the only solutions were greater contributions from universities and staff, as well as significant reductions to the final pensions staff would receive. University managers seem to have bought into this, but further investigations revealed that the pessimistic predictions had been exaggerated. The USS, though, does not seem to be retreating from its position. This impending battle deals already flagging morale a significant blow, and bearing up under the weight will require enormous levels of forbearance and solidarity.

Brexshit

If you add these issues – fees, student numbers, shaky balance sheets, pay, and pensions – to the disaster that is Brexit, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel of 2019. Our economy is in bad shape, social inequality is rising, and all of this looks to get worse if we leave the EU by isolating ourselves from the social diversity and exchange that our participation in the EU incorporates. For universities, they become even less able to attract students and staff – and research funding – from EU countries, and perhaps from overseas more generally as we appear less attractive. UK universities may be about to become even more insular and underfunded, at a time when they can least afford to be, either culturally or financially.

Predictions for 2019

What is the best possible prognosis here?

  1. The government cuts fees but grants extra money – with few strings attached – to help universities better attract and support disadvantaged students;
  2. Universities agree to raise pay beyond the paltry 1% currently on the table, an offer which has already been rejected by the unions;
  3. Somehow those universities most at risk sort out their finances without damaging their research or teaching;
  4. The USS pension acknowledges the mistakes made in its initial valuation, accepts that it is not in such bad shape after all, and minimal changes are made to ongoing pension contributions and the eventual pensions themselves;
  5. Brexit is reversed, or at least proceeds with the softest option, and we are able to retain access to EU/other international staff, students, and moolah.

I actually can’t see any of these things happening, and it’s heart-breaking, particularly for someone who – perhaps somewhat unrealistically, given the evidence of problems in HE – really buys into the idea of what we do as a collegial, forward-thinking endeavour. It feels like we’re on the edge of a really major fall. 2019 may turn out to be a positive year for me personally, but it looks likely to be an annus horribilis for us as a collective.

 

Posted in Access to Uni, International Students, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

A University Carol

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Stave One

Professor Ben Ceerzee-Gooser was working late, as usual, poring over the data of his latest set of graphene experiments. He was alone in the lab, having (generously, he thought) given his latest post-doc, Barb Cottich, the afternoon off to attend the end of year faculty bash. He was slightly in shock since his long-term research partner, Professor Marco Jabley, had suddenly handed in his resignation that afternoon, leaving his university chair with immediate effect. They had recently completed an award-winning project which looked to bring the commercial production of graphene – using copper disks in pressurised ovens – much closer.

Marco’s resignation was not entirely out of the blue. They’d recently Skyped – Marco worked at the University of  Bologna – and he knew that he’d been unhappy for some time. He professed to be falling out of love with higher education, seeing it as overly driven by one-upmanship through achieving ‘impact’ – whatever that was – and income – more tangible – rather than scientific progress. He was probably on to something, Ben, mused, but working in graphene meant you could tick both of those boxes and still do fun work, albeit at a frenetic pace to stay ahead of the competition. He knew that a team at CSIRO in Sydney were hot on their heels, and there was no time to lose.  

He was about to return to his studies when there was a knock at the door. It was Barb, asking if he wanted to join them at the end of term Christmas party. ‘No, no thanks, things to do’, he replied. She nodded, and left. That kind of thing was not his bag. He resented his colleagues’ jealousy at his success, and the way they were always asking about his work. He was convinced they just wanted to ride on this coat tails, and that would never do. They’d no doubt hold him back, and his success was down to his own graft – it was unfair to be piggy-backed by others. They should stand on their own two feet.  

Stave Two

He glimpsed across his desk at one of few photographs on it. It showed a group of mostly young scientists, squinting at the camera in bright sunlight. It had been taken 30 years ago at a conference in Valetta. The figure in the centre was his erstwhile mentor, Fig WIzze, and the group around him included the entire research group, fifteen people. Ben was at the back, on the right, shyly holding hands with young woman. Belle. Had she been ‘the one’, the one that got away?

Ben had been an awkward Physics undergraduate, slow to make friends, but he had excelled on the course, and had then been taken under Fig’s wing as he moved into postgraduate study. Fig was one of those (rare?) people in universities who were immensely successful and universally loved by both peers and junior colleagues. He had been warm-hearted, the life and soul of the party, and incredibly generous and inclusive in his approach to research. Genuine tears had been shed by many when he retired.

Belle had been in the same cohort, and after a time they’d fallen in love. It had all fallen apart when, returning to the lab one evening, Ben had found her leafing through his lab books. He’d immediately taken umbrage and accused her of spying. She had protested, said that she knew he’s been stuck on something, and was wondering if there was some way she could help. Ben had refused, furiously snatching the book away from her, called her out as a traitor. The relationship was obviously irrecoverable from that point on. She was a professor now, too, and they occasionally saw each other at conferences. He’d been drunk one evening at an event in Berlin a few years ago, and had suggested that they could – should – have stayed together. She’d told him to fuck off and get a grip, that he was far too selfish and focused on his own work to operate in a functioning relationship. He’d been affronted at the time, but in hindsight, she may have been right, as testified by his two failed marriages. Such is the price of academic success, he mused.

Stave Three

Ben decided to call it a day, he somehow wasn’t in the mood any more. He closed down his computer, put his notes in the safe, locked it and checked it twice, switched off the lights and then locked the door, again checking twice to make sure it was fast. He could hear the party still going in the atrium, and he paused in the shadow of a pillar on the walkway, watching his colleagues down below. They were having a good time, and he could see the head of department was already dancing. She was always the first, and her enthusiasm was contagious, bringing others. There was always something incongruous about academics on a dance floor, he’d always thought.

He saw his post-doc, Barb, laughing with some of the other junior staff, clearly enjoying letting off steam. She was on her second 18-month contract with him. She was very good, but was thinking of leaving for a permanent position; she said she and her partner – who was finishing her doctorate – couldn’t buy a house or support their growing family on recurrent contracts. He had enough long-term funding to offer her an open-ended contract, but in his experience those on permanent jobs lost their hunger. He hadn’t, but he’d seen it elsewhere. It was in the interests of the project (and a bit cheaper, of course) to have precarious staff, and he’d easily pick someone else up if Barb left. There was certainly no shortage of applicants every time he put an ad out on jobs.ac.uk.

Stave Four

He crept down the back stairs and through the fire exit to avoid his colleagues and their festivities. His ground floor flat was a short walk from the office, and he let himself in, made tea, and then sat on the sofa in the dark. He looked out over the garden, the street light shining across it. Closing his eyes and he reflected on the day: the usual administrative drudgery of the departmental meeting first thing, Marco’s resignation, and then the party in the atrium. There was something detached about it all, something unreal, as if he was a spectator in his own day. Dwelling on that thought for a few moments, he suddenly felt the familiar lurch of dipping into sleep, and kicked his leg out as a reflex reaction.

He was transported to a faculty event, not quite in black and white, but certainly not full colour. He floated through the main entrance door, past a sign he couldn’t quite read. There were the usual people there, the customary warm white wine, crisps, Battenburg cakes, sausage rolls, and so on. One of his colleagues, from Astrophysics, who’d made it onto TV and become a bit of a celebrity, got onto a table with a microphone, tapping it a few times. He called ‘order, order’, which got a few laughs, and then started to speak when the room died down.

“Ladies, gentlemen, we’re here to mark the passing of a fellow staff member, someone who was taken from us suddenly last week. I imagine you’re in the same place as me, still trying to process the sad news. There is no doubting that he was a research star, and has made a major contribution to both the university, making significant advances in his field over the last thirty years or so. Some people might have found him hard to work with at times, I know I did, but that’s part of who he was, and perhaps that was necessary for him to achieve such academic success. However, I’m sure we’re in no doubt as to his  academic brilliance, studded with the gems where his particular taciturn humour shone through from time to time. Let’s focus on those. Colleagues, let’s raise a glass to the late Professor Ben Ceerzee-Gooser.”

Ben recoiled. What? What was he doing here? He looked, panicked, around the room, scanning the faces. People were solemn, but there were no tears. He was no Fig Wizze, but he’d have expected more emotion. He moved towards a group of senior staff, people he’d worked with for over a decade, some much longer. He picked up a fragment of conversation. “Yes, well”, the head of department was saying, “in a way it’s a shame, but it’s clear that Ben’s best work dies with him. Since Barb has left for that job at Cranfield, we can’t decipher what he was up to. Not that she had full access anyway, it’s mostly locked away in external hard drives. The published papers and lab books tell us something, but we can’t access the meat of the data. It would take someone years to work out how to replicate those results, and the Australians will have overtaken us by then. We’ll have to see what we can salvage from the EPSRC, but at the end of the day, we might just have to move on.” There were nods, awkward glances as people looked into their wine glasses for something to add. Ben wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come…

Stave Five

He woke up, noting drily – or, rather, wetly – that he’d dribbled on his tie in his sleep. He wiped the corner of his mouth and took a moment to get his bearings. He was still there, on his sofa. It was dark, and his tea was luke warm. He’d not been asleep for long, then. He took a deep breath and stood up, feeling slightly sick, somehow bereft. No, this simply wouldn’t do. HE opened his laptop and booked a classroom in the usual faculty seminar slot on the next Wednesday afternoon, inviting all staff in the faculty. In the invitation, he wrote:

‘Dear Colleagues.

I would like to invite you all to an open session on my current graphene project. I have been struggling with a few issues, and was hoping for some feedback on ways to address it. There will also hopefully be some avenues for shared projects or other collaborations. I will, after the session, be opening my data folders to colleagues, at least where funder embargoes allow.

I hope to see many of you there.

Very best wishes,

Ben.’

He pressed send.

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The Hero at the Helm

 

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The new international students’ accommodation was due to be a real money spinner. (Artist’s Impression)

Describing the VC’s state of mind as incandescently apoplectic would have been an understatement. He stalked back through the door of his wood-panelled office, pushed it quietly closed, then shut his eyes and clenched his fists before silently screaming “FUCKERS!! FUCK!! NNNNGH” across the empty room. He kicked the wicker bin hard, watching it arc over his conference table, shedding balls of paper like a stream of contrail. “BOLLOCKS!”

Taking a deep breath, he tore his eyes away from the temptations of the drinks cabinet – it wasn’t even mid-morning – and went to stand at the bay window which served as his crow’s nest. For a few minutes he stood quietly, observing the cranes lowering girders into place over the growing university accommodation. There was something mesmerising in their slow moves, and he felt the tension easing off a little as he followed their choreography. The accommodation was an arm of the master plan to raise money any which way, in this case through the marginal gains of carving off slices of profit on every edge of the international student experience. Luxury flats for internationals, they were going to be too expensive for domestic students, even the most well-heeled ones. If the projections were correct, though, they would yield a very handsome profit as long as they could keep recruiting over a quarter of their students from outside the EU. The capital outlay was eye-watering but you had to spend it to make it, and he was determined to hold his nerve.

Only £50K

The morning’s events would take some time to settle, and he’d no doubt be tasting the bile for the next twelve months. The problem was that the annual review panel had only given him a £50K pay raise for the coming year, and he was convinced they’d enjoyed doing it, too. He’d missed out on a £200K hike by a THE World University Ranking overall score of 1.2. That was the difference between where they were and squeaking into the top 100, the institutional target he’d agreed with the Senate two years ago. Jesus wept! The metrics were absurd, but you couldn’t run an organisation with thousands of staff without reducing it to numbers, and it did make sense if you didn’t think about it too deeply. The tail had wagged the dog for years now, there was no point denying it. If the Chinese weren’t pumping out research papers at such a frightening rate (how did they do it?), they’d have made the top 100 for sure. There was an irony in that they depended on Chinese students so much, financially, but at the same time many of them would return to Chinese universities and be putting those skills to use to undermine the global position of UK HE.

It helped enormously that the university had a good reputation. Being in the Russell Group, which was an accident of history in itself, represented an overgenerous helping of organisational capital. Reputation counted for a lot, particularly on the THE and QS rankings. If you started off ‘high up’, you could actually be pretty awful for over a decade and it had little to no effect on people’s perceptions. Bizarre, and entirely unmerited in methodological terms, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It must be infuriating for the plate glass VCs, doing so much good work but never being able to catch up with the civics, who had a sixty-year head start. Oxbridge were a separate species entirely. They’d spent so long closing ranks and screwing over everyone else that it had become part of their organisational DNA. He suspected that it was now so institutionalised there that that they didn’t even notice it any more.

Turning the Supertanker

In hindsight, he’d done all he could since he’d taken charge three years ago. He’d been  wrestling heroically at the helm from the off, and the supertanker was finally starting to turn. When he’d had arrived, his muscular strategic plan at the ready, the university was sluggish. A lot of the senior staff were starting to dodder a bit, in his view. They were still producing four star papers, but they’d lost their interest in generating income, or at least couldn’t do so rapidly. Slow scholarship was a thing of the past, it was now about fast and faster. He’d started off making a few subtle tweaks to the promotion system, including the option for demotion if research income wasn’t forthcoming. This had separated the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly; a good third of the professoriate had left and he’d been able to recruit younger, proven money-magnets at a fraction of the cost.

Youth was the answer to a lot of his problems, actually. The overproduction of doctoral students was a real boon in that helped with REF environment returns and simultaneously provided an endless flow of PhD holders who had to take up short-term teaching contracts. The university had very limited responsibility for them, only employing them for nine months of the year and piled them high with marking and very little prep time. This did wonders for the staff-student ratio, which again helped on the rankings. This state of affairs wasn’t in the long-term interests of the sector, but that wasn’t his problem, which was the here and now, or at least the here and next-five-years. Young staff were  getting cheaper and cheaper in both real and pension terms, although the resistance to changes in the USS had surprised him and the other VCs. They’d get there eventually, though, they had to –  they were too much in debt across the sector to be able to afford to back down now.

Full Optimisation

His own university was probably a few years away from full optimisation. A handful of departments, particularly Music and Philosophy, had proven resistant to rationalisation, and they would probably have to go. The profit margins from tuition were decent enough, but there was no money in those subjects in research terms. Grants rarely came on an FEC basis and they were therefore a luxury the university could ill-afford, like widening participation. He’d been trimming that team over the past two years, and the figures on working class intakes weren’t great, but they were good enough. You had to be seen to be trying, and while student diversity and social justice made the headlines, it didn’t feature on league tables, that’s what mattered. Thankfully you could point most of the blame elsewhere, in that government-enhanced social inequality lay at the root of that conundrum. University leadership was not for the faint-hearted, and you had to make ‘difficult decisions’, and that’s why he commanded the salary he did.

He’d read that morning, though, that Steve Smith, VC at Exeter, had pocketed a £400K bonus, effectively doubling his salary. Bugger. The next time they bumped into each other at the Athenaeum, he’d struggle to look him in the eye. What an unbearable thought. He might even have to change clubs. Heads would have to roll.

 

 

 

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University People…

Universities are places filled with real people. Let’s meet some of them…

The Vice Chancellor

The Emeritus Professor

The Über-successful Scientist (aka ‘A University Carol’)

The University Data Manager

The Misanthropic Doctoral Student

The Reluctant Union-ist

(This is a work in progress, more are to come.)

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Teaching in HE | Leave a comment

The Misanthropic Doctoral Student

Prezzo

Yawn – yet another mediocre recycling of old hat?

Aubrey was, as usual, sitting by himself at the back of the room,  paying less than half attention. He was pretending to write notes on the presentation but was actually drafting the outline of an incisive new paper on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enduring sexual magnetism. At the front, a post-doc from Warwick was earnestly and enthusiastically sharing their recent work on social class and the Temperance Movement. It might have been interesting if it had been related to Aubrey’s own work. As it was, it wasn’t, on either count. He was only there because absences in faculty seminars were frowned upon. It was ‘uncollegial’, supposedly. Still, attendance and engagement weren’t the same thing, not that many people understood that.

He washed down the lingering aftertaste of a slightly stale custard cream with a sip of his now tepid, and typically bad, coffee. Cradling his thickly bearded chin in his left hand, he looked thoughtfully out of the window, hoping that it appeared as if he was thinking about the presentation. He could see the 1960s brutalist – and now listed – university car park, steadily being dwarfed by the greater architectural atrocity of the new, multi-million pound, tinfoil-clad Nanoscience facility. Beyond that was a copse, and then miles and miles of brick terraces, crouching like half-visible toads in the afternoon smog. He briefly thought of ‘the masses’, closeted together in their badly-decorated little boxes, leading dull, pointless lives of cerebral drudgery and petty concerns, before moving up a level of abstraction.

Aubrey had suspected from a young age that most of humankind was pretty stupid. He was now convinced of it. Some of this sense had come from his mother, a science teacher at a comprehensive school who gleefully regaled him with stories of pupils who struggled to understand even the basics of GCSE Physics. The evidence, though, outweighed the anecdotal, it was all around him, and certainly wasn’t limited to the world outside universities. Most of his undergraduate peers at Exeter had waffled and fluked their way through their degrees before going off to take up vacuous PR jobs in the city. They had been, and were still, oblivious to what was plain to him and probably to his fellow Übermenschen: they had no idea what they were doing. They were only successful by dint of going to the ‘right’ schools and having relatives who got them into interviews at corporate head offices.

Coming back to earth, Aubrey noticed that the presentation was coming to a close. The post-doc had clearly been given the ‘Two Minute’ sign, and was rushing through their conclusions. It was pedestrian stuff, really. He could see that, yes, there was a gap in the literature, and yes, it was combined with some fairly new literary theory, and yes, it drew noteworthy parallels with current advertising campaigns by the drinks industry. La-di-dah. To be honest, though, in terms of conceptual depth, it was probably comparable to what Aubrey was achieving in his Master’s essays two years earlier.

The question now was this: could he be bothered to ask a question? Aubrey had two approaches to discussion time at the end of presentations. His first, and default position, was to say nothing, particularly as most presentations merited little more than barely veiled disdain. This was as much the case for senior faculty as they were essentially recycling the same ideas they’d built their careers on twenty years earlier. The second strategy, when he was feeling vindictive, was to drive a stake through the heart of their argument, killing it dead. This was best preceded by the lengthy exposition of something medieval and obscure, and preferably only available in Italian or German. You had to be careful how you phrased it, particularly when the presenters were influential. The trick was to hide the poison in the Trojan Horse of a pensive question, pretending that you weren’t quite sure of the answer, when in fact you were.

He knew he had a reputation for taking down guest speakers, and that this didn’t make him popular. Whatever, academia wasn’t a popularity contest. It was important to keep the firewalls of career progression high otherwise standards would slip even further. In his view, bar the odd exception, hardly any research in his field at the moment was original in any way, and people needed to be made aware of that. Imposter syndrome wasn’t just something that people bleated about on Twitter, patting each other on the back to make themselves feel better about their own mediocrity – it was a systemic problem. The academic ranks were stacked to the gunnels with imposters, and the mechanisms in the system to root them out weren’t really working. Now was as good a time as any to switch them on, he thought. As the speaker came to a close and the applause petered out, he made a quick scribble into his Pukka notepad – Bocaccio’s Teseida, 1340. He then raised his hand, observing as he did so that several of his colleagues looked down at their desks. Idiots, the lot of them.

 

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | 1 Comment

The Myth of the (HE) Market and ‘Survival of the Fittest’

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This is from the ‘original’ (Warning: Paywall!)

This article first appeared in Research Professional, but in a paywalled section; they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce it here. 

The higher education market

Universities, in the UK, and globally, operate in a market. They compete with other higher education institutions – and other training and career pathways – over students, funding, and staff, all of which are only available in finite amounts. In short, it’s a dogfight over limited resources, a race to the top where only the fittest survive. If you’re not fit enough – i.e. of good quality and therefore chosen as a research/study/work destination – you’re extinct.

A unique situation

In many ways, though, higher education is not a market. There is some competition, but research and teaching are founded on collegiality and collaboration. Commercial organisations don’t share information or know-how with their competitors to improve what they do or produce.

Furthermore, social scientists have long shown that individuals’ choices are not always well-informed or rational. At one level, you can’t know what the precise outcomes of a degree or research project are in advance, even if there is some probability of particular learning outcomes and potential employment, or findings.

If you also factor in that the markers of quality that we see in TEF or league tables are largely proxies, the idea that people are consciously and strategically choosing the best option falls even further apart.

Finally, league tables give a misleading impression of a single higher education space. Some universities do recruit staff and students, as well as research funding, internationally, while others are more local.

This means that competition, where it does exist, operates on different scales and with a relatively small number of rivals. League tables change relatively little over time, too, so the notion that the ‘top and bottom’ are pitted against each other is clearly nonsense.

Much of this is old hat, but it sets the scene for less frequently considered questions around the concept of the market and how it might function – or not – in higher education.

Survival of the fittest?

The logic of markets is taken from the Darwin’s model of evolution, in that competition and adaptation – continually raising standards and efficiency – are required to survive and thrive. However, markets are not natural in the same way as biological ecosystems; they require two fundamental, man-made conditions to exist: a capacity in players to compete, and an arena in which they do it.

In terms of the first, universities need to have the ability to adapt, and this may not come naturally. Universities historically have been similar to state departments, without a strategic leadership function – or marketing teams, for that matter. To suddenly expect them to be agile, proficient in private sector ‘combat styles’, is unrealistic since it is not within their cultural DNA.

Also, an arena is identified by its conditions for winning and losing. In sport this is the first over the line, or the most points when the final whistle blows. For universities the standards are the ever-present but entirely nebulous notions of reputation and excellence, both of which are inherited and tautologically connected with those dubious metrics.

This means that some players start way ahead, and gaming the system – optimising performance in relation to measured criteria rather than actual quality – can mean that some may look fit on the outside but are actually wheezing and panting behind the scenes.

Three drivers for change

In theory, competition drives up standards as everyone ups their game to catch up, keep up, or stay ahead, but does this play out in practice? Organisational studies have shown that there are three other key drivers for change, none of which are necessarily connected to actual gains in efficiency or effectiveness.

Firstly, organisations have to align themselves within formal environments of rules and regulations. Universities of course are no stranger to this, being surrounded by national legislation from health and safety and employment rights, to higher-education-specific frameworks around degree awarding powers, admissions systems, tuition fee arrangements, and so on.

They have to align with funders, too, as research sponsors have strict eligibility and application criteria, along with procedures for disseminating and reporting on research. Observers of policy know that its creation, implementation, and outcomes rarely follow a model of evidence-based, uniform application, and unbridled success, so there is no guarantee that formal rules represent best practice.

Secondly, organisations imitate each other, modelling themselves on other players in their sector, usually those that are seen to be successful. When faced with a new problem, it makes sense to look at how others are doing it. However, unless we have precise details of how their ‘solution’ works, we may in fact be copying a practice which creates more problems than it solves.

This imitation may in part be driven by a desire to improve credibility. This aids status but maybe not execution. Universities have similar ceremonies or formal attire, and in the past designed impressive, gothic buildings – often with a tower. Nowadays we see more recent trends such as proliferating university crests and other material which highlight (or exaggerate) the length of institutional histories. The emulation of ancient universities is evident in all of this.

Thirdly, any sector to some extent governs itself though informal practices associated with particular professions. These range from jargon to organisational structures (like faculties and departments) or procedures (like the PhD viva), and may be specific to disciplines.

They tend to be embedded and unconsciously accepted, which makes them resistant to change. Some, such as plagiarism, have long-standing principles which are widely accepted and (by and large) followed. Others, though, may hamper change, such as the intransigence of economics, which has struggled to adapt to critiques around the inability of orthodox economic theory to predict or explain recent financial crises.

So higher education is a market in some ways but not in others, and this means that there are interesting tensions between collaboration and competition. Furthermore, the supposed alchemy of markets as facilitating choice and continuous improvement is largely mythical. Organisations – and the people within them – are not only oriented towards efficiency and effectiveness, if at all.

 

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